Yves here. Please thank Eugene Linden for taking the effort to distill his considerable market experience into a clear and plausible interview of what has gone awry in our financial markets and why it’s entirely rational to be leery. The short version is options are increasingly driving prices.
Options are potentially hazardous because they are only as good as the counterparty “writing” the risk. We saw recently with the blowup of Archegos that the “family office” (a glorified name for a rich guy and some hangers-on but not enough investors so that the investment manager has to register as an investment adviser) had achieved tremendous levels of market exposure by using total return swaps rather than stock purchases, and these were further levered by borrowing against the cash hoard.
Typically the parties on the other sides of trades like this are hedge funds, so there isn’t necessarily a lot of systemic risk. But here, Credit Suisse and Nomura Holdings took big hits, but not enough to mortally wound them. And even then, if a hedge fund gets in trouble because it can’t make good on options bets it wrote, it could still kick off an unwind of borrowings from banks. Remember LTCM had borrowed from many banks, and when a massive bet in comparatively simple interest rate swaps went sour, the Fed had to get them into a room to agree on a bailout and wind-down.
But Eugene’s discussion reminds me of an older crisis, the 1987 market crash. A significant number of institutional investors had signed up for portfolio insurance, which was supposed to limit their exposure to market swoons. Instead, their herding into one trade did the reverse. Program trading generated automated selling in futures when stock market indices dropped below a certain level. The problem was a wave of automated sales then pulled stock market prices down, by arbitrage, that led to more automated selling of futures.
Even though the trading strategies now are allegedly more complicated, because algos, the model-makers use similar approaches to risk, which means the odds of herding and crowded trades are high.
By Eugene Linden, a chief investment strategist for a family of hedge funds specializing in distress and bankruptcies. He has also written several non-fiction books on science, technology, the environment, and articles and essays in Time, Foreign Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, and other major publications
Lately a string of violent price movements and reversals in the equity markets make it look like the markets are having a nervous breakdown. The last day of trading in April 2022 saw a 939 point drop in the Dow. The day before that, the Dow rose about 625 points, and two days before that it fell over 800 points. The very next week, after two quiet days, the Dow rose over 900 points after the Fed announced its biggest rate hike in 22 years (ordinarily a big negative for the markets), and then, the next day, fell over 1000 points (more on this later). There have been plenty of headlines – about the Ukraine Invasion, inflation, the threat of a Fed caused recession, supply chain disruptions – to justify increased uncertainty, but the amplitude of the moves (and the sudden reversals) suggest something more may be at work. Here follows an effort to explain in simple language the significant changes in the market that have contributed to this volatility.
“This time it’s different” is perhaps the most dangerous phrase in finance as usually it’s uttered by market cheerleaders just before a bubble bursts. That said, markets do change, and those changes have their impacts. One change in the markets has been the shift from intermediaries (such as brokers) to direct electronic trading, a shift that has made the markets somewhat frictionless, and allowed computer driven funds to do high speed trading. This shift began a couple of decades ago. Today’s markets can move faster than a human can react.
Another shift has been the degree to which passive investing through index funds and algorithmic trading through various quant funds have come to eclipse retail investing and dominate trading. A consequence of this is that to some degree it has mooted individual stock picking because when investors move in or out of index funds, the managers have to buy or sell the stocks held on a pro rata basis and not on individual merit. This change too has been developing over recent decades.
A more recent and consequential shift, however, has been the explosion in the sale of derivatives, particularly options (the right to buy or sell a stock or index at a specified price on or before a specific date). Between 2019 and the end of 2021, the volume of call options (the right to buy a stock at a specified price on or before a particular date) has roughly doubled. During times of volatility, more and more retail and institutional investors now buy calls or puts rather than the stocks.
Today, trading in options has reached a scale that it affects market moves. A critical factor is the role of the dealers who write options and account for a significant percentage of the options issued. Dealers have been happy to accommodate the growth in option trading by selling calls or puts. This however, makes them essentially short what they have just sold. Normally, this doesn’t matter as most options expire out of the money and worthless, leaving the happy dealer to book the premium. Being short options, however, does begin to matter more and more as an option both moves closer to being in the money and closer to expiration.
This situation is more likely to occur when markets make large and fast moves, situations such as we have today given the pile of major uncertainties. Such moves force dealers to hedge their exposure.
Here’s how it works. If, for instance, a dealer has sold puts on an index or a stock, as a put comes closer to being in the money (and closer to expiration), the dealer will hedge his short (writing the put) by selling the underlying stock. This has the combined effect of protecting the dealer — he’s hedged his potential losses – while accelerating the downward pressure on the price. In other words, this hedging is pro-cyclical, meaning that the hedging will accelerate a price move in a particular direction.
Traders look at crucial second derivatives of stock prices, referred to by the Greek letters delta and gamma to determine exposure to such squeezes. As an option moves closer to in the money it’s delta — it’s price movement relative to the price movement of the underlying, and its gamma — the rate of change of the delta relative to a one point move in the underlying, both rise. The closer to both the strike price and expiration date, the more the dealer is forced to hedge. The result is what’s called a gamma squeeze. Once the overhang of gamma exposure has been cleared, however, the selling or buying pressure abates, and gamma may flip, with new positioning and hedging done in the opposite direction. The result can be a whipsaw in the larger markets. This same phenomenon can happen with indexes and futures.
How do we know that the hedging of option positioning are contributing to violent price changes and reversals in the market? While not conclusive, perhaps the strongest evidence is that large lopsided agglomerations of options at or near the money have been coincident with surprising market moves as expiration dates approach. In fact, some market players use this data to reposition investments, in effect shifting investment strategy from individual companies to the technical structure of the markets. This is what Warren Buffett was referring to when, at his recent annual meeting, he decried the explosion of options and other Wall Street fads as reducing companies to “poker chips” in a casino.
The week of the May Fed meeting gave us a real-time example of how a market move that looks insane on the surface reflects the underlying positioning in various derivatives. To set the stage: ordinarily, given debt burdens and the threat of recession, the markets would be expected to react badly to a Fed tightening cycle that is accelerated by the biggest rate hike in 22 years. On Wednesday, however, market indices began to soar on Wednesday when Fed Chairman Powell, one half hour after the Fed announced it 50 basis point raise, suggested that the Fed was not considering larger 75 basis point hikes during this tightening cycle. Traders interpreted this as taking the most hawkish scenario off the table. Up to that point, institutions were extremely bearish in their positioning, heavily weighted to puts on indexes and stocks, and also positioned for future rises in volatility in the markets. Right after Powell made his comments, investors started hedging and unwinding this positioning, and all the pro-cyclical elements entailed in this repositioning kicked in. By the end of the day, the technical pressures producing the squeeze had largely abated, setting the stage for a renewed, procyclical push downward the next day, as the negative aspects of the tightening cycle (and other economic headwinds) came to the fore.
What these violent moves in the market are telling us is that while in the broader sense, this time is not different –the overall sine wave of the market is still that bubbles build and burst — how the present bubble is bursting may be following a different dynamic than previous episodes. The changes since the great financial crisis– the rise to dominance of passive trading through indexes and algorithmic trading through various quant strategies – reduced the friction in the markets as well as the value of picking individual companies. Now, the more recent explosion of option issuance, further accelerates market moves, and leads to unpredictable reversals that have to do with option positioning rather than fundamentals such as earnings, politics, or the state of the economy.
The tail (the options and other derivatives markets) now wags the dog (the equities markets).